Have Eastern also-rans done enough to get back in the playoff mix?
With much of the heavy lifting done for the summer, it’s time to take stock of the 14 teams that failed to make the NHL playoffs and determine which ones have put themselves in the best position to return to the dance in 2016.
Today we’ll take a look at the Eastern Conference also-rans.
Boston Bruins (96 points, 9th)
The Bruins will be a different team in 2015–16. It’s far from certain that they’ll be better.
GM Don Sweeney’s panic sell-off of Dougie Hamilton was a crippling blow to the franchise, both in the short and long term. Barring the addition of a legitimate top-four defenseman before the start of the season, the blue line stacks up as a significant area of concern.
The trades that sent Milan Lucic and Carl Soderberg out of town were cap-created and unavoidable, but left gaping holes up front that were only partially addressed. Free agent Matt Beleskey is a huge gamble, with just one 20-goal season to his credit. Local boy Jimmy Hayes is an interesting add, but he has yet to establish himself as being any more reliable than the departed Reilly Smith. Hayes is coming off a career-high of 35 points but he was an occasional healthy scratch for the Panthers, which leaves plenty of room for doubt. And the less said about Zac Rinaldo, the better.
Elite goaltending and coaching will keep Boston in the mix, but the B’s are less than 50-50 to return to the dance.
Florida Panthers (91 points, 10th)
You have to give the Panthers credit. Florida proved to be surprisingly competitive last season, far exceeding expectations for a roster that relied so heavily on youth and fading glory. The Panthers will go with a similar formula next fall, hoping that young players, including Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau, continue to progress, and that veterans such as Jaromir Jagr have more than gas in the tank.
The team’s one major move this summer saw it ship out one inconsistent forward (Jimmy Hayes) for another (Reilly Smith). Reilly is the more established of the two, scoring a total of 33 goals, with 58 assists, in the past two seasons, and he fills a hole at right wing that was created by Florida’s buyout of Brad Boyes. As far as upgrades go, however, it’s not going to get the Panthers over the hump. Unless GM Dale Tallon has something else up his sleeve, it looks like Florida is hoping for significant internal growth. That should keep them in the hunt, but they’ll need to catch a few breaks to make the cut.
Columbus Blue Jackets (89 points, 11th)
After finishing the season with 12 wins in their last 13 games, the young and improving Blue Jackets are a lock for the top eight if they can slice the 508 man-games they lost to injury last season in half. Simple as that.
Add two-time Stanley Cup champion Brandon Saad to the mix, and their chances look even better. The 22-year-old is expected to slide onto Ryan Johansen’s wing and bolster a corps of forwards that will be fast, aggressive and highly effective. Gregory Campbell, brought in to bolster the fourth line, doesn’t have much left to offer, but his leadership will help counter the loss of valuable depth forward Mark Letestu to the Oilers.
Philadelphia Flyers (84 points, 12th)
Owner Ed Snider may be in win-now mode, but it’s hard to say the same for his Flyers, a team for which the best days still seem a ways off.
Incoming coach Dave Hakstol brings a fresh voice and perspective, but he’s still saddled with a blue line that’s largely ineffective—it allowed more than 30 shots per game and 2.72 goals-against, 21st in the league last season—and a forward corps that desperately needed two reliable top-nine pieces. Sam Gagner won’t fill that bill.
That’s not to say that it hasn’t been a productive summer in Philly. Michal Neuvirth was a solid add as Steve Mason’s new backup. GM Ron Hextall engineered a couple of brilliant trades, acquiring a third rounder for Zac Rinaldo and pawning off Nicklas Grossman as well as Chris Pronger’s salary on the Coyotes. And Philadelpia’s performance at the draft earned high marks. Long term, the Flyers look healthier than they have in ages. That said, a team that finished 14 points out of the playoffs last season still hasn’t done quite enough to bridge the gap, especially with several clubs in the Metropolitan Division making significant statements.
New Jersey Devils (78 points, 13th)
New GM. New coach. Pretty much the same non-competitive Devils lineup minus the input of Lou Lamoriello, who has departed to take over as GM of the Maple Leafs. Borderline top-six forward Kyle Palmieri (trade with the Ducks) won’t cure the ills of the league's 28th ranked offense (2.15 goals per game). Nor will free agent John Moore upgrade the middling defense. This team sure looks like it is primed for seven long months of passionless hockey.
Carolina Hurricanes (71 points, 14th)
If Hurricanes GM Ron Francis accomplishes nothing else this summer, he still will have earned a passing grade simply for buying out the contract of Alexander Semin. Better to hand the man a bag of money and show him the door than watch him steal it for the next three years.
Francis made a pair of smart adds in Eddie Lack—who could challenge Cam Ward for the starting job—and veteran puck mover James Wisniewski, but neither of those players make a significant dent in the problems that are facing this club. Carolina is more likely to challenge for the top draft pick than a playoff berth next spring.
Toronto Maple Leafs (68 points, 15th)
A summer of seismic activity on and off the ice continued on Thursday with the stunning hiring of long-time New Jersey architect Lou Lamoriello as the Maple Leafs’ new general manager. The Hall of Famer joins a cast of new faces led by coach Mike Babcock and players Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington and Nick Spaling (acquired from the Penguins in exchange for Phil Kessel) as well as free agents Mark Arcobello, Shawn Matthias, Daniel Winnik, P.A. Parenteau and Matt Hunwick. None of them will get Toronto anywhere near the playoffs this time around, but their arrival marks a new and clearly defined moment that suggests better days lie not too far ahead.
Buffalo Sabres (54 points, 16th)
Another team that benefited from an aggressive summer of self-improvement, but not enough to be considered a playoff contender ... at least, not quite yet.
These Sabres, though, should be a fascinating and highly competitive group with Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel slotted in as their new No. 1 and No. 2 centers. Both are world-class talents who will help redefine an attack that produced just 1.87 goals per game last season, the fewest in the league.
Robin Lehner, picked up in a trade with the Senators, will finally get the chance to prove that he’s a legitimate No. 1 goalie. The 23-year-old has all the tools, but is coming off a concussion and is also still relatively early on in his development. Then again, so is this team, so no hurry. Buffalo will be a better, vastly more entertaining club, but the playoffs are at least one more season away.
• Here’s an interesting look at the ties between mental and physical stress and how they can make certain players more susceptible to injury.
• Scotland’s Braehead Clan has earned a spot in Europe’s Champions Hockey. This introductory video will have you wearing purple. Not sure about the kilt, though.
• What’s a third-round pick get you in a trade these days? According to new Bruins forward Zac Rinaldo, “a smart dump to get a good forecheck.” Oh, Don Sweeney ...
• This shot of the Finnish crowd celebrating Kimmo Timonen’s day with the Stanley Cup is amazing.
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